Monday, August 8, 2011

Owen Wister and @#$%&! language

Montana cowboys, c1910
While reading Owen Wister's early western fiction, it occurs to me that a few words could be said here about language. Like many western writers, Wister reminds us that where men are unconstrained by the manners of polite company, they will swear. His stories make constant reference to that custom.

Given the standards of publishing at the time, however, this could only be done indirectly. So we get non-explicit indications of rough talk in an almost infinite variety. Here is an even dozen of them from Wister's Red Men and White (1896):

Cumnor swore some resigned, unemphatic oaths, fondly supposing that “shortly” meant some time or other; but hearing in the next five minutes the definite fact that F troop would get up at two, he made use of profound and thorough language, and compared the soldier with the slave. (p. 95)

The captain carried a letter in his hand, and the orderly, though distant a respectful ten paces, could hear him swearing plain as day.
(p. 144) 

1st Cavalry, Fort Hood, Texas
He unwrapped a clean, many-crumpled handkerchief, and held Lolita’s photograph for a while. Then he burst into an unhappy oath, and folded the picture up again. (p. 194) 

Swearing capably, the Major now accounted clearly to us for the whole occurrence, striding up and down, while we lifted the hurt men into the ranch wagon and arranged for their care at Cedar Springs. (p. 249)

Uttering a single disconcerted syllable of rage, he wheeled and went by himself into the barracks, and lay down solitary on his bunk and read a newspaper until mess-call without taking in a word of it.
(p. 90)

Of Luis’s chatter he said his whole opinion in one word, a single English syllable, which he uttered quietly for his own benefit.
(p. 178) 

Texas Rangers, 1890
He went about town with some cattlemen—carousing bankrupts, who remembered their ruin in the middle of whiskey, and broke off to curse it and the times and climate, and their starved herds that none would buy at any price. (p. 195)

He, not so easily, and with small blunderings that he cursed, attended to his horse and mules, coming in at length to sit against the wall where she was cooking. (p. 181)

The men were talking and cursing, all but Drylyn there among them, serious and strange-looking.
(p. 118)

The colonel’s face was red, and he swore in his quiet voice; but the lips of the lieutenants by the open locker quivered fitfully in the silence.
(p. 242)

This took the boy unguarded, and he swore with surprise. Then his face grew somber.
(p. 268)

He fastened his eyes on the thicket, and his lips grew bloodless. The running river sounded more plainly. “—  — it!” cried the man, desperately, “let’s start the fun, then.”
(p. 110)

Colorado cowboys, 1924
The blankety-blank of the last example is the  rule for some early western writers, which is unfortunate. There’s a kind of entertainment to be had in the hands of a clever writer who could verbalize a variety of inventive dodges without seeming to do so.

The modern writer, of course, is free to fill in those blanks. Ironically, avoiding explicit language in a fictional world where folks would normally use it often seems as awkward today as its opposite a century ago.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Yellowstone Kelly (1959)


  1. Ron, I'm currently reading The Virginian and enjoying it immensely. These are fine examples of getting a point without saying the actual words.

  2. It's funny, because in reading reviews of some Westerns I commonly see reviewers griping about "the unnecessary bad language" that "ruins and otherwise good book." Me, I'd rather not see it sugar-coated, but to each their own, I guess. Then again, I'm a fan of the Western genre, movies in particular, in spite of my general loathing for most of the "classic" movies that are more viewer-friendly.

  3. ADVENTURE MAGAZINE had the policy of using dashes for swear words like "hell" or "damn". Which is ok with me because then I can insert even stronger oaths.

    Despite the complaints about the language used on the HBO western series, DEADWOOD, I've read that cussing was quite common in the 1800's west.

    This was a - - - -good post, Ron.

  4. The point is, of course, that these books were intended to be read by the polite company you mentioned in your first paragraph. I think the change in publishing standards reflects more on the readers than the writers - reflects what the public is willing to read.

    Speaking of blanks - right now I'm reading Booth Tarkington's Penrod (1914), and in one chapter a boy writes a story in adventure-magazine style, complete with the villain's dialogue consisting mostly of dashes. :)

  5. Deadwood really change how I thought about the West. Quite a shock.

  6. Leah, I've read THE VIRGINIAN 2-3 times and always have enjoyed it.

    Chris, growing up with family-friendly movies and TV, I can go either way. I was surprised by how I became accustomed to the language in DEADWOOD. But see my comment to Patti below.

    Walker, cowboys, muleskinners, and others on the frontier had a reputation for inventive and colorful swearing. Most of it, unfortunately, including the raunchy songs, has been lost to us.

    Elisabeth, you're exactly right about the audience. Loved the story from PENROD. To my knowledge, I've never read Tarkington.

    Patti, DEADWOOD writers wanted the language to reflect the lawlessness of the camp; I can buy that, but much of the profanity seemed too "modern" to me. Kept seeming anachronistic.

  7. As in most things, I am of two minds on this language issue. Part of me does admire –at times – the clever euphemistic outcome that a different set of sensibilities necessitates... I am thinking of Hemingway in For Whom the Bell Tolls having people say "fornicate yourself." But for the most part, I think it is pure class-centered B.S. Anglo-Saxon rooted expletives were part of the language in Shakespeare's day and in the days of Jesse James. If the character in the story is the kind of character who cusses and swears... but does not in the story, then the story falls flat because the character and the story can only be as real as the language. Fiction is rooted in truth... and can be more real than things that are true. Euphemisms and untruths only lesson fiction. That is my blankety-blank two-cents worth.